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HDMI ARC and eARC: Audio return channel explained

One of the easiest ways you can connect your TV to a soundbar or receiver is by using a specialized HDMI port called Audio Return Channel. The ARC connection lets you listen to your TV audio without having to use an extra cable, such as optical. ARC is most important if you plan on using the apps on your TV, such as the Netflix app, or if you don’t have spare inputs on your sound system. Instead, you simply plug everything into your TV and use its remote to switch sources.

Meanwhile, the eARC standard, which is a part of HDMI 2.1, improves on the original in a few key ways including supporting Dolby Atmos. In terms of setup, it’s basically the same as regular ARC. We’ll discuss the benefits of eARC further down, but first: the basics.

Do you need ARC?
To be fair, many people don’t need ARC. If you only listen to audio using your TV’s speakers and don’t have a receiver or soundbar, the feature is superfluous. The point of ARC is to send audio created by or switched through your TV to an external audio device, namely a soundbar or receiver.

Because the sound on most TVs is terrible, we strongly recommend getting at least a soundbar to improve the TV experience. Check out our guide on how to buy a soundbar and soundbar vs. speakers for more.

If you have a soundbar or receiver of fairly recent vintage that has HDMI, it probably has ARC, too. Here’s how it works.

Can you use ARC?
Check the HDMI connections on the back of your TV, soundbar or receiver. If the HDMI port has ARC, it should be marked as such. Both your TV and the soundbar or receiver must have ARC for it to work. Often, only one port will have ARC or eARC, and on TVs, it’s usually number one or number three.

eARC and HDMI 2.1
The latest version of the HDMI interface is HDMI 2.1, and it offers numerous important changes including support for higher resolutions. Relevant to us in the context of this article is eARC, or enhanced Audio Return Channel.

While Dolby Atmos can be passed over regular ARC today (via Dolby Digital Plus) eARC offers improved bandwidth for higher-quality Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio streams, including Dolby Atmos.

The new format also has lip-sync compensation built-in. This feature was optional in ARC but is now required. This lets you more easily line up the sound with the visuals, something that has always been an issue in the modern TV era.

To take advantage of the new features, both pieces of gear must be eARC compatible. Fortunately, eARC is available in far more gear than just high-end 8K TVs. Since 2019 most mid- and high-end TVs have had eARC. These days even many budget models have eARC. It’s backward-compatible with ARC, but just don’t expect to stream Atmos through an older TV. Although most new TVs don’t need the other features of HDMI 2.1, manufacturers can implement most useful portions of HDMI 2.1, such as eARC.

You probably don’t need new HDMI cables for eARC. Older cables with Ethernet, either Standard or High Speed, will work. The new Ultra High-Speed cables will work as well, of course. Chances are, your current cables have Ethernet and you didn’t even know it, so they’ll probably work, too. To take advantage of some other HDMI 2.1 gaming features, such as Variable Refresh Rate (VRR) and 4K 120Hz, a better high-speed cable is needed or you’ll simply get no signal.

Things are simpler for regular ARC, and most HDMI cables should work with it. There are two main ways to connect a system using ARC and/or eARC. For our purposes, we’ll assume you have a TV, a receiver or soundbar, a Blu-ray player and a game console (Xbox or PlayStation).

  • Using the TV as an HDMI switch: Connect the Blu-ray player and game console to the TV, then connect a single HDMI cable from the TV to the soundbar. The TV becomes the central hub of your entertainment system.
  • This setup lets you use your TV’s remote to switch between the Blu-ray player and game console sources, and in most cases, you can use your TV’s remote to control the volume.
  • The potential downside of this setup is you might not be able to get 5.1 or higher surround sound. This is more of a problem if you are using a surround receiver instead of most soundbars (which typically can’t fully playback 5.1). We’ll discuss this more in the “Issues with 5.1” section.
  • Using a receiver or soundbar as an HDMI switch: Connect the Blu-ray player or game console to the receiver or soundbar, then a single cable to the TV. Some budget soundbars might not have enough HDMI inputs for all your sources, in which case you’ll have to use Setup 1.

In this setup, your receiver/soundbar is the central hub of the entertainment system. You will switch between your sources and adjust the volume using your receiver/soundbar’s remote. You’ll only use your TV’s remote to turn the TV on and off and access any apps built into the TV. Theoretically, the TV will automatically turn on and off when you do the same on the receiver. This is called CEC but it doesn’t always work. More on this in the next section.

HDMI CEC control
Another HDMI feature is called CEC, or Consumer Electronics Control. Nearly every company has its own name for this feature, including SimpLink, Anynet+, BRAVIA Sync and others. In theory, CEC will let the remote from one piece of gear control another, as long as they’re connected with HDMI. For instance, in Setup 1 above, your TV’s remote can adjust the volume on your soundbar.

There’s no guarantee it will work, especially across different brands or ages of gear. If there’s any aspect of ARC setup that’s going to cause you problems, it’s this. You might not be able to realize the dream of using one remote unless you get a universal remote control. If it doesn’t work, Google might help. It could be as simple as having to turn on your gear in a certain order. In the end, this control aspect may not function.

The last setup step is making sure your TV and soundbar/receiver know to send or look for the audio being sent over the Audio Return Channel. If you’ve got everything connected correctly, and it’s not working, turn everything off and then turn it all back on again. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to dive into the settings. It should be fairly obvious in the setup menus how to enable audio over HDMI or ARC specifically, but if not, all owner’s manuals are on the manufacturer’s website. If that doesn’t work, try turning the devices on in a different order: TV then soundbar, or soundbar then TV.

One last thing to check. If everything else seems correct, but you’re still not getting audio, or you get audio with some sources but not all, check the audio output settings on the TV or the problematic source. Look for a setting that lets you change “bitstream” to “PCM” or vice versa. Switching to the other might clear up the issue.

Issues with 5.1
As great as ARC can be, there is one big issue: 5.1. Technically, TVs aren’t allowed to send 5.1 audio over HDMI. In other words, if you’re watching a movie on Blu-ray with 5.1 Dolby Digital or DTS and it’s connected directly to your TV (Setup 1, above) your receiver might only be able to get 2.0 audio. TVs that can do this are said to have “5.1 passthrough.” This restriction helped lead to the creation of eARC which we discussed above, but it enables external speakers to playback both 5.1 channel and Dolby Atmos.

Some existing TVs can still do 5.1 while other TVs will output 5.1 via the optical output, but not ARC. Our friends over at have an extensive list of what TVs do what, although it only goes back to 2017.

Keep in mind that this issue is only relevant if you have a 5.1 source, like a Blu-ray player or game console, and you’re trying to send that device’s audio via ARC from the TV to a receiver. If your TV doesn’t support 5.1 passthrough, you can either connect that source to the receiver directly, or you can connect the TV and receiver with an optical cable. Optical cables don’t carry Atmos.

Connecting a source like Blu-ray directly to the receiver/soundbar has another benefit: Doly Atmos, Dolby True HD and DTS Master Audio. If you have an older TV these higher-fidelity formats can’t be sent over ARC, but they will be able to with eARC.

ARC reaction

On paper, ARC is a great way to simplify your home theater system. The reality is more complicated. Read any user reviews about any product with ARC and there will be issues getting it to work. Depending on the age of your gear and the complexity of your setup, getting ARC running and staying running can be frustrating.

Our advice for most people is to connect your sources to your receiver or soundbar, if they’re capable, and only use ARC to get audio from your TV’s internal apps. Not every system will work like this, not least if your soundbar doesn’t have enough HDMI inputs. With infinite setup possibilities, we can’t offer perfect idealized advice. Connecting directly to your audio device will, in theory, offer the best chance for the highest quality audio.

Also, although optical cables and connections are disappearing, they offer a more traditional way to connect audio that might offer fewer issues, at the expense of some sound quality and theoretically less simple usability. If in doubt, go optical. CNET

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